I’ve been squatting in a damp field for more than an hour. My thighs ache and my eyes hurt from searching inside flower after flower, plucking the tiny ‘stigmas’ – part of the reproductive organs – from each lovely crocus with fine tweezers. And now, I have what look like 530 orange strands of cotton – but it isn’t cotton; it’s saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.
Welcome to the newest addition to Croydon’s horticultural landscape, a saffron farm from which volunteers hope to harvest an annual crop of saffron. And why shouldn’t they? After all, the name Croydon actually means ‘Crocus Valley’ in Anglo-Saxon.
We know this because of the research done by Croydon Radio DJ Ally McKinlay for his show Made in Croydon. He was then inspired to create a community-led crocus valley, farming saffron and sharing it with people all over the town to spread the history of Croydon.
Facing the beautiful view of the farm located next to the Queen’s Gardens, he tells me about how the project began: “The idea of it being a crocus valley is romantic and beautiful. I started growing some crocuses in my back garden to get people from different parts of Croydon to take flowers, because the corms [flower bulbs] multiply.”
Unfortunately, McKinlay didn’t manage to get many people involved in the project at that point. However, it took a turn for the better during the summer. McKinlay heard that the site next to the Queen’s Gardens where Taberner House used to stand would be empty until next year.
“From growing the crocuses I realised that if they’re planted in August or September, they’ll be flowering by October or November, so we can get in and out in about three or four months,” he says. “I approached a couple of councillors and presented my idea. They really liked it and they agreed if we can make the site safe, then we can turn it into a farm.”
After that it was a matter of getting the project funded. There were materials needed such as the crocuses, soil, gravel, and scaffold boards. Croydon Saffron Central’s funding was raised through a civic crowd-funding organisation called Spacehive.
“We raised £4,275 in six days,” says McKinlay. “All funded by the community anda few businesses. David Wilson Homes made a really big donation at the end and that made us reach our target, if we didn’t meet the target we wouldn’t get any funding at all.”
“We had a big day in Queen’s Gardens. About 150 people came down and helped to pot up all the corms. We’d been given 16,000 pots by the council, and still didn’t have enough pots to plant in. Which is why there are about fifteen sacks in front of you,” McKinlay gestures to the sacks which the soil and gravel originally came from, “there are a hundred flowers in each sack.”
The crocuses were planted on 19 September. Many have bloomed and are ready to harvest. McKinlay has been harvesting some of them almost daily during lunchtime, but an official harvest is due to happen because of the large amount of saffron that needs picking. He tells me that they’re going to start harvesting on Friday and Saturday, so I volunteer to lend my hands.
It’s a sunny day on the first day of harvesting and there are a total of six volunteers including me. Since it’s a working day, the harvest is held for just an hour. Each of us needs to sign an induction paper that explains all safety procedures on the site. Then I received my jar and tweezers, the only equipment needed. I opt out of sitting on a milk crate because I find it easier to move around and pick the saffron if I just squat. In an hour, I’ve harvested saffron from 285 flowers.
On Saturday, more people are popping in since the farm is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., bringing a total of 24 people. Some families even bring their children, who are really curious about the flowers. I manage to harvest saffron stigmas from a total of 530 flowers and apparently, I’ve been quite efficient.
McKinlay tells me about some of his plans after the harvest: “My main priority is to have an event where we bake saffron buns and cakes for everyone to enjoy. We’ll have a party where everyone who’s funded, helped with the potting and harvest can come down and taste what they’ve helped to create. Croydon chefs who want to be involved are welcome to get in contact with me.”
There’s another harvest on Saturday the 7th of November. Anyone who would like to see if they’ve got the steady hands for saffron picking or just wants to visit the farm is welcome. Harvest volunteers should contact Ally McKinlay first at email@example.com to sign up.